Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Judging Mother

The trend in psychotherapy in the first half of the twentieth century was to blame the mother for whatever the symptoms expressed by anyone else in the family. 

Then in the fifties it became fashionable to blame mom and dad.  Father took blame for supporting mother's pathological influence, be it abuse or neglect, and sometimes for behaving poorly himself.  He was given a pass, however, on neglect, didn't have to participate in family life because: (a) he worked, and (b) guys aren't supposed to talk about feelings or ask about them. Certainly not when they're tired at the end of the day. 

Then in the sixties, seventies and eighties, family therapists caught on to the transgenerational system.  We noted that pathological behavioral and belief patterns are passed down, consciously or not, from parents to children.

So we searched the transgenerational family tree, blamed grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-great grandparents, even uncles and aunts and distant cousins, way up to the top branches-- the ganztza mishpacha (Yiddish, sounds like fonts-ah- dish-puck-ah) --  the whole family.  We blamed the family system for awhile then finally decreed: No one is to blame. It is the family system that is to blame, family dynamics, patterns that repeat, unchallenged, year after year after year.

At some point we came to realize that no family system is an island, and if we're going to blame anyone, anything, we might have to blame the entire universe; for even people and events in the news affect our thoughts and behavior, as do our teachers and co-workers, the people in the grocery store.  So we added "search" to the ecosystem to find a systems diagnosis, and used that for system change.

But sometimes it is just so obvious.  It's Mom.  We really can blame her, although the tree, those teachers, the neighbors, might be culpable, too; and Dad could get best supporting actor.  But Mom has a corner on emotional power, that power to make us feel happy, or to make us feel sad, and sometimes she knows it, can't help but wield it. And it hurts all the more because, rightly or not, we expect more from women.  When our woman doesn't deliver, it is the unkindest cut of all.

We'll put aside our wide-angle lens when father does it, too.  We stop looking for patterns when one parent or another is consistently hurtful, is negligent or abusive consistently throughout the "child's" life.  We stop looking because the patient, no longer a child, is really, really sick and needs treatment, understanding and empathy, may be cutting or suicidal.

A narrative points to a story of disappointment, pain, insults and drama, a relationship that never healed properly, one that didn't turn out nice, not like parent-child relationships should.  No fairy tale here.

The therapist sees cause and effect and doesn't like it.  The patient has shopped, priced, and compared, knows that many, if not most people have mothers (fine, fathers, too) who are not insistent upon the child's independence, who care for them when they are sick, who praise, rather than criticize, who don't withhold love, don't slap.  The adult patient is thinking that at some point a human being should stop, should shape up, should become someone who knows how to give.  Parental.

In this process, while talking through the narrative, neither the doctor nor the patient wants to label anyone bad.We tiptoe around the word bad, play with deficient, unknowing, mentally ill, a product of his or her parents. Mama didn't know any better; she is an improvement upon her mama.

Mother's culpability only becomes an issue when reality steps up and delivers.A call from her, maybe, asking for money, or time. Maybe new information from a sibling or a cousin.  Someone posts an old family video, or a picture. Facebook.  Anything and everything can be a trigger.  The patient is going along, doing fine, minding her own business, feeling fairly protected, when suddenly anxiety is off the charts, defenses shot to hell.  Like a broken child, she voices it in therapy:  I'm alone.   I was used to it.  But it is so clear, so painful, how she never loved anyone but herself.  What does she want from my life?  Why can't she just leave me alone? I'm alone either way.

That existential dilemma.

Those of us who have healthy parents have tucked inside healthy introjects, representations of the good mom, the good dad, home and goodness, an identity that gets us through tough times.  When a parent has been grossly negligent, absent, deficient, or terrifying, the child has no positive introject, no soothing representation of family.  When there's nothing inside to lean upon, that existential dilemma, loneliness, becomes a crisis.  Save me, they say, silently.

Sometimes I think I see abandonment everywhere, in every relationship, or its dear cousin, narcissism, selfishness. None of us are perfect parents.  We can't always be there for our children, and sometimes we are all about us.  It's true.  But we try to keep that to a minimum, try to be there for our kids, and we express our love, our undying love.  True narcissists, and people who are sick, sometimes people with addictions, might not want to but they abandon their children.  They are the only ones in the room, the only ones with feelings that matter, and their children miss out, suffer a slow emotional starvation.

In a good therapy we do look for the love, try to find what's below the surface, forgotten good vibes.  We spend hours seeking love in the history, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and we may find splashes of it.  Or not. Or the pickings are just so slim we might look at one another and sigh, agree to abandon the search. 

When we do that, it's okay, it really is. A person can do very well without parents, can find others as mentors, can be loved, protected by someone else. We think we need parents to be secure, but we don't.  So much more goes into being secure.

It's very hard to get to that place, to let go, emotionally, to stop hoping for what might never happen. When there is a cut off, miraculously, the world does not stop spinning.  It even feels safer.  It might be inevitable if a parent isn't amenable to therapy, or won't work on the relationship, maybe has no resources.  Or family therapy didn't work.  Most therapists don't bother trying to work with older parents.  Instead, they become highly adept at engineering sturdier umbrellas for surviving adult children.

The triggers are what make the umbrella something to keep in the car because there seems to be some kind of direct neurological pathway between the Mother event in real time and cutting and thoughts of suicide.  The cutting is to leech the pain or to send the therapist, the good mom, a message. Save me.

I bring this up because it begs an ecosystem solution.  Because I don't want to do the saving, not by myself. We talked about this a little in How to Save a Life.

The modest proposal,  a solution to the problem of judging mother is empathizing with son and daughter.  Since they are unidentifiable, since we don't know who they are and there may be thousands of them, we must empathize with everyone in every social context.  This may seem like an impossible solution, for so many of us simply haven't got the chip, but we know that empathy can be learned, like we all learn a new skill, like stopping at stop signs while driving. Those who don't stop at stop signs will be harder sells on empathy.

I'm thinking people should throw it into conversation, should ask one another, Do you think I'm an empathetic person?  Responses are likely to be honest.   It's a relief, honesty.  Expect to feel defensive but good, for this is a teaching moment.

Empathy works like this in a therapeutic context:
1. Someone complains about Mother.
2. The good therapist only cares about that complaint and how it affects the individual.  It is all about feeling this person's experience, the therapist feeling the patient's pain.
3. Questions apply; answers do not. We ask in order to better experience the pain of the patient.
4. We ask more.  We want to know all about it. Empathy is not about giving answers or suggestions; it is all about questions.

When a person is triggered, distressed, it is safe to say that anyone can be therapeutic by staying with this person, this friend in need. And best is to let the friend go ahead and judge. There might be a few rules to keep in mind.

This is not the time to say,
Give the benefit of the doubt. 
There must have been a good reason for. . .
You might have done the same if you were in that situation.
Not therapeutic, and for a person who has been abandoned many, many times over, the benefit of the doubt is hollow, reasons shallow. And you're likely to hear:
No, I would not have done this, no matter the circumstances.With attitude.

This is not the time to say,
You have to let go of your anger.  Forget about it.
Or worse,
You should confront her. Let her know how you feel.
Send the sheep to the wolf, why don't you.

This is not the time to say,
Forgiveness is divine.
Forgiveness is a process, for some, a lifelong process.

This is certainly not the time to say,
What you should do is . . .What you should have done was . . .
It is a good time to say,
Tell me, tell me about your anger.
You have a right to your feelings.
It is safe to believe that these feelings don't come out of nowhere.

There is a proverb, maybe a mishna (Google it) that says,
Don't speak to a man when he is angry.
The cutting, the suicidal behavior, this comes from a very angry, sad place.

Once the anger and sadness has lifted and healing is palpable, in therapy we talk about alternative narratives. We might rewrite the script, employ visual imagery, all kinds of cognitive behavioral interventions.

Wouldn't it have been great if you could have said. . .?
Why don't you put her in the chair and talk to her, tell her how you feel?

You can do that too, after the anger is gone. Timing is everything. Just be sure not to trigger your buddy again. Less said, seriously.

For it really is okay to judge someone, and it's more than okay, it is therapeutic to let another person judge. Even if it is the very same person who brought him into the world.


PS:  If you judge someone's mother, you're taking a huge risk.  I can say whatever I want about my mother, but you better well not.  That's my mother you're talking about.


-K said...

I find validation in my therapist's criticism of my mother and working on "exorcising" her impact from my life. I eagerly grasp on to any hope that I can escape the hell of clinical depression, stress eating, sleeping for 16 hours a day... I just wish parents knew the profound impact of their actions. Or maybe they do and just can't help themselves due to their own dysfunctional parents. I'm not sure, but would give almost anything to rid myself of the toll my mother has taken. I just can't seem to shake it and I'm almost 48.

therapydoc said...

Yes, K, I know. I want to say Just . . . But know better :)

Lost in Wonderland said...

Thanks for writing this, I am struggling with this very issue in my own therapy at the moment. Figuring out how to create security as an adult when you were denied it as a child has proven to be challenging, but not impossible. I feel so much better just knowing that someone else "gets it.", and understands her patients needs. I am lucky to have found therapists who also get it and I have been able to use those relationships to heal.

tuesday@11 said...

Oh my God TD, you know my mother and I! I thought I made progress in my therapy with my relationship between mom and I until she had to move in with me a few months ago. What a nightmare! I've been out of therapy for awhile and think it is time to go back. This post will be read over and over by me.

jo said...

I enjoyed this post -- thank you. I struggle with the fact that I deal with intense attachment issues despite growing up with incredibly stable, kind, and loving parents. It baffles me and I wonder if it also baffles my therapist. She often speaks of other childhood traumas in my life, but I never see posts/articles that address attachment issues that don't involve the parents.

CARD said...

What a terrific post. I loved the "This is not the time to say,..." part - really key rules for empathizing in general, not only with abandonment issues.

sydney said...

I loved the empathy rules, very enlightening. I believe I have learned something quite profound today. Thank You.

Retriever said...

Dear TD, what a wonderful post! I have so often written against mother blaming, at least partially because (as the mother of a child on the autism spectrum) I was always afraid of being blamed for his condition. Thank God most people no longer do a Bettelheim and blame "refrigerator mothers". But we had an incredibly traumatic evaluation by a school district psychologist (who lived in our neighborhood no less!) who speculated in negative ways about the home. Even tho everyone else who knew our kid believed that we were good parents, that ONE negative speculation stung. He has the grace to look embarrassed now when he sees my boy hug me spontaneously on the street or walking the dog with me...

My spouse and I have made it our life's mission (not always successfully) to be better parents than our own narcissistic, unaffectionate, demanding, and often cruel ones. Mine absent constantly, both physically and emotionally. Posted this about a current controversy and realized just how much personal stuff it stirred up: http://artemisretriever.blogspot.com/2011/03/runaway-mother.html

Rayna Eliana said...

What a wonderful post, with so much to ponder within it.

I worked hard at being a different mother than my mother was with me, when my children were younger, and now that they are adults and parents, I work just as hard, if not harder.

Empathy...is the word of all time.

Sarah said...

This really hit home for me. Great post. And I completely agree with the P.S. my husband and I go around and around on that one. She is MY mother, I can be angry with her but YOU can't. :) I love her dearly, but I am doing my best to raise my kids much differently.

Anonymous said...

Just left my mentally abusive husband of 5 years. I have a teenage daughter who lived with us. I visit your blog and even link to it on mine. This just says alot to me, even though it may not seem to "fit". It sure does for me. Thanks for writing it.

porcini66 said...

Sigh...I just feel like the worst mother of all time tonight and then I come to read your blog and...sigh...

Not your fault and, as usual, you make perfect sense and say things so incredibly clearly and well.

Just...Do you really think it's all our fault? Will they carry our faults forever? Should I start an account for the therapy NOW? GAWD! Nights like this, I hate being a mom....

Leigh said...

porcini -- ditto on the worst mother thing, my husband was away at a conference all week. Sometimes I really hate being a mother. He's comes off as fricking saint for coming home with stickers and I'm the mean one for making her long sleeves :(

Anyway what about the depressed mothers in denial, Doc? My mother is the sweetest creature -- but clinical depressed for years... I'm a father blamer :P

therapydoc said...

Oh no! You are not the parents we're talking about here. You're all dripping gobs of empathy. Cut a little slack here, no? (see how much easier it is to give the benefit of the doubt?)

Smitty said...

I am navigating the blame thing, myself. I find it ironic that the very psychiatry that used to blame the mother... now tells us we have bad brain chemistry. It is only those of us who are fortunate to have both the therapy and the medication, who get to look deeper. We can still "blame" our moms, even as we work very hard to take responsibility for what we cannot change. Taking the right balance of power is the best choice I have; when I get caught in blame, I am a goner...

Mound Builder said...

I found this immensely helpful. Your column, TD, reminded me of a book I'd stumbled across about a year ago, The Narcissistic Family. I'll try to summarize. It was written by two therapists who had noticed over time that there were patients who came to them who seemed to struggle with issues that seemed similar to those who'd come from families where there was overt abuse, only the patients the book talks about, for the most part, didn't come from families with overt abuse. The book talks about the effects on the children when a parent, for whatever reason (physical illness, mental illness, personality disorder, narcissism, job less, etc), when a parent's problems become the focus in the family and there is no room, really, for providing the nurturing the children need because nearly everything within the family is somehow to support the sick parent. I gather that the authors of the book not only noticed this kind of pattern in their own practice but that it is a pattern quite a few therapists notice, grown children who seem very capable often, coming from families where there isn't anything obvious that accounts for the things that have driven the patient to therapy.

I remember many years ago when I first heard about the kinds of issues adult children of alcoholics struggle with. I was surprised at how many of those things seemed very familiar to me, only there was absolutely no alcoholism in my family, in my parents. I wondered at why I struggled with the same kinds of issues. That book, The Narcissistic Family, helped me to understand. My mother suffered from severe agoraphobia for most of the first 6 years of my life. And even as she got better from that, many things revolved around my mother and her narcissism. One thing I liked about the book, written by therapists and for therapists, was that it talked about the fact that for adult children who grew up in such a system, it is often difficult to say or maybe even think anything that seems critical of the parent or parents. The book tries to sidestep blame but does focus on the patient and how to work toward healing some of those injuries. A big part of it is recognizing that there was injury, even within a family that outwardly might appear to be relatively normal.

Kid Id said...

So glad I stumbled across this. As a psychologist, I am always amazed by how much jargon we use in our field - it only serves to make psychology and therapy more mysterious and stigmatizing. Your blog completely normalizes it all in plain (but extremely eloquent!) language that everyone can relate to. Thank you! And I agree - empathy is 99% of the work.

Andrea K. Baum, M.Ed., LPC-Intern said...

Thanks for posting, I found this incredibly helpful! I am just starting out as a psychotherapist and I love that I am able to find great blogs like this one to continue learning from others in the field.

Eva Lee Najubez said...

Love the PS comment. Reminded me of my teenage years with my very loving but extremely controlling, only human mother, that I complained about every chance I got to my friends, and one day one of my friends said, what a female dog. My mouth dropped. "Don't you go talkin bout my mama that way, she's doing the best she could, considering how pathological a childhood she had.

I took a psychology workshop recently on eating disorders, and the psychotherapist pretty much said that its all the mother's fault, and the family dynamic of no privacy, boundary issues and a perfectionist child, as one of the causes. Some of my peers disagreed with a vengeance, but I pretty much sat there and nodded the whole time.

therapydoc said...

Thanks, Eva, for the thoughtful comments. Natch, thanks everyone.

TheSeparateRoom said...

Nice post and interesting comments!
I am just busy reading a book that ties mother and brain chemistry together - Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain by Sue Gerhardt.
It explains how the mother or carer's love, holding, and her attuned responses to the baby make the baby's brain grow into a responsive and socially adept little brain, even from a chemical and biological point of view. And this will result in an adult who is trusting and more able to be in touch and regulate her own emotional needs as well as to respond adequately to others.

I will post a review of the book on my blog as soon as I have finished reading it, please click on my name to view my site TheSeparateRoom.